Reviewing Pizza Express is a little bit like reviewing Disneyland Paris; it’s been around for so long nothing new is capable of being said about it. It’s full of children, has a couple of new features, though not enough to write home about. It’s empty during term time. Expensive. Cheesy. Staffed by dour Europeans.
I won’t bore you with too many details about the actual meal, which was of course as serviceable as it always is. The pizza tastes exactly – exactly – the same as it has since I was nine. The Peroni is still crisp, the salad dressing is still pleasantly cloying and sour, and the bill still requires smelling salts to recover from. You know the drill.
Instead I shall bore you by talking about myself.
This branch of Pizza Express used to have a revolving door. It was, and perhaps remains, the only restaurant I’ve ever been in with a revolving door, a strangely officious barrier for a pizza place. The revolving door is now gone, and in its place a revolving-door-shaped cavern and a big heavy slab of glass that requires two hands to open. It’s like Pizza Express doesn’t want you to come in, turning itself into some Indiana-Jonesian ancient puzzle.
Across the road from this Pizza Express was another restaurant called Little Italy. It was a dark little hovel, with raised seating platforms either side of a gangway leading to the kitchen, which was staffed by Hondurans. The pizzas were pretty much exactly the same, as was the rest of the menu, save for one dish: the barbeque ribs. These ribs came in the saltiest sauce I have ever had in my life, and were inedibly hot every time. You’d burn your tongue, and then the salt would burn the roof of your mouth. It was an impossibly masochistic dish, and we ordered it every time, because it was fucking delicious.
I split my most of my childhood between these two pizza restaurants, Pizza Express the faceless entity and Little Italy the place where I’d see the waiter taking his kids to the same swimming lessons as me. My dad affectionately calls him a ‘bastard’; he was terribly good looking. He, like Little Italy and, more broadly, the family restaurant experience, disappeared off the face of the earth, and now only exists in memory.
On a recent trip to Japan I discovered a slightly incongruous reverence for chain restaurants. In a typically offensive and Orientalist way, I assumed that the CoCo/ GoGo Curry Houses and Sutadonyas and Yoshinoyas occupied a more necessary part of the culinary landscape than a sentimental one: something late night, something quick and, more to the point, something solitary. But speaking to several friends there you see that they hold a very special place, and that the solitude is part of the charm- enjoying something alone in soppy drunken reflection. They’re always open, ubiquitous comforting features of otherwise empty stretches of road. And it’s always exactly the same.
I only ever really go to Pizza Express with my dad now, and in many ways that’s always how it’s been. Pre-football, post-cinema, me and him, shooting the shit. He always gets the same thing (as do I), a La Reine with pepperoni. I think we both find the familiarity and, in a lot of ways, monotony, quite comforting. Our chats have changed a lot over the years, pleasantly I’ve stopped talking about school and he talks about his job, which is phenomenally more complicated and involves exponentially more juggling than mine. Pizza Express turns into a bit of a Masonic Lodge, a little room of secret ritual not mentioned outside, though the ‘secret ritual’ is actually just blokes getting pissed talking shite, maybe a complaint about how long the conservatory is taking to build.
In the last five or so times we’ve come here something has gone wrong. On one visit we were certain the kitchen was on fire, part of some Fawlty-Towers-esque farce. But he keeps suggesting it, and we keep coming back. ‘It’s good pizza though, isn’t it?’ he said tonight after another string of complaints. Perhaps he likes it for the same reason I do: the Pavlovian sensation of a lifetime of bonding. I hope so, anyway.